Saturday, January 30, 2016

Are You a "Thinking Mormon" or a "Go-Along-to-Get-Along-Mormon"?

For many years in the Church there has been a constant battle between what used to be called the "intellectuals" vs. the "conservatives". Each faction had its proponents, and the intellectuals were sometimes characterized as those without a testimony, while the conservatives were considered the purists and the defenders of the faith. I suppose these factions and others will always exist in the Church. The more things change the more they remain the same.

It has seemed to me that in recent years the divisions continue to deepen. To be thought of as someone who doesn't think deeply and critically about one's faith is to be like the polling question among voters, "Do you consider yourself well-informed on the issues"? What right-thinking respondent wouldn't answer as an informed voter? So how many answer that question in the affirmative even if it's not true? In addition, who wants to be thought of as an intellectual laggard who merely goes along to get along in the Church without ever undertaking a rigorous and thoughtful approach to one's discipleship? Much better to be thought of as a stimulating intellectual than one who merely clings rigidly to the past traditions, so the reasoning goes.

President Brigham Young
This morning I read several articles, two of which stood out particularly. Before I go there, however, I was reflecting on a recent General Conference talk by Elder M. Russell Ballard, who urged his listeners to stay in "the Old Ship Zion". He senses, as we all do, there is much unrest within the ranks of the members of the Church for a host of reasons. That much has always been true, but there seems to be an escalation. Elder Ballard quotes President Brigham Young, who used the Old Ship Zion as a metaphor when he said:

“We are in the midst of the ocean. A storm comes on, and, as sailors say, she labors very hard. ‘I am not going to stay here,’ says one; ‘I don’t believe this is the “Ship Zion.”’ ‘But we are in the midst of the ocean.’ ‘I don’t care, I am not going to stay here.’ Off goes the coat, and he jumps overboard. Will he not be drowned? Yes. So with those who leave this Church. It is the ‘Old Ship Zion,’ let us stay in it.” (Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Brigham Young [1997], 82–83).

Many bristle at any suggestion that we cling to the past without seeming to give any consideration to more "modern" ideas espoused by the progressives who would take the Church if they could into uncharted waters. In their haste to get ahead of the brethren they often err in their over-zealous certitude.

Natasha Helfer Parker
The first of the two articles that caught my eye came from The author, Natasha Helfer Parker, is a Mormon clinical marriage and family therapist. who wrote "Double Binds Hurt Us". I encourage you to consider her thoughtful response to a recent Deseret News article about what appears to be an alarming increase in suicide deaths among the LGBT youth in the Church. As we all know, the Church's policy statement about the disposition of under-age children in the homes of gay and lesbian parents was meant to clarify the same issues that are involved in the homes of those parents who are engaged in polygamous communities to which the Church is opposed.

The Church believes in letting children who reach majority age of 18 make up their own minds about their religious preferences, rather than becoming the source of conflict between parents who stand in open rebellion to Church dictum over marriage between one man and one woman and their children. It's a reasonable policy position. But it seems in Parker's experience that it may stand in stark contrast to Christ's admonitions to love everyone unconditionally. Sometimes we seem to say, "I love you unconditionally with these conditions." Parker fairly points out it may actually be difficult to quantify the number of suicides attributed to confusion over the Church's policy, but that does not diminish our need to continue to focus on its effects.

Helfer points out that the double bind problem is real, and whether knowingly or unwittingly we often send dual-meaning messages that seem contradictory in our attempts to clarify positions. There is still much for us to do to improve our messaging and our outreach, and she gives a thoughtful treatise on this topic without seeming the least bit untrue to her core Mormon beliefs. She's a "thinking Mormon". I appreciate her contribution here.

We need look no further than our own hearts and souls in understanding the tensions that often arise over these issues. There is a perpetual war in mortality between what is referred to in Holy Writ as "the natural man" (see Mosiah 3:19) and our pure spirit. In the constant bombardment that swirls all around us in today's political climate, we must find peace in our own souls.

Peggy Fletcher Stack
The second article was written by Peggy Fletcher Stack, and appeared recently in The Salt Lake Tribune. Peggy has a gold-plated Mormon heritage as a great-granddaughter of President Heber J. Grant and a granddaughter of former US Senator Wallace F. Bennett. She's always been a bit conflicted, it would seem, with her roots and her intellectual bent, but I always appreciate her point of view, as I did when I read her article titled "Why top Mormon leaders' private writings may never become public".

There has always been a tension between Church leaders and Mormon historians over access to the archival contents involving what is perceived to be the "deep, dark secrets" every good Mormon historian would love to get their hands on. In recent years with the publications of the Joseph Smith Papers, in large part this criticism has been abated, but after reading Stack's article it occurs to me that enough will never be enough.

The article particularly resonated with me on a personal level. She observed:

In the 1980s, assistant church historian Richard E. Turley explains, the Utah-based faith began requiring all Mormon general authorities to sign an agreement, pledging that any "work product" — including their "journals, speeches, photographs and other records of enduring value" — belongs to the church's history department "for long-term preservation."

The Church History Library, he says, "seeks to make as much information as it can publicly available from these records within legal, ethical, and religious boundaries and practical resource constraints."

A week away from his 94th birthday, my father wrote the definitive biography about President Harold B. Lee. As his source documents, he used the hand-written journals of President Lee. Many years ago when he was finished with his book, Dad donated the original journals to the Church. What we didn't know as his family until a few months ago was that he had carefully transcribed and indexed all those journal entries on his typewriter and had intended to preserve them inside the family in perpetuity. He confided in me that he was having misgivings about that decision, and asked me to read thirty-plus years of content and give him my recommendation on their eventual disposition.

I did as he requested and thus became only the second person to have access to the complete record within the family. As I dove deeper into the contents, I felt as though I was treading on sacred ground. The thought continued to grow that this content did not really belong to us as his descendants. He was first and foremost the 11th President of the Church, and secondarily our grandfather.

Elder Steven E. Snow and L. Brent Goates
Obviously, the 1980s agreement to which Stack makes reference was not in force in the days of Harold B. Lee, but my recommendation was to turn over all the transcripts to the Church. The transfer was effected when Elder Steven E. Snow, the Church Historian, made a visit to Dad's home and personally secured the copies. They consisted of hundreds of sheets of single-spaced typing and double-sided papers held together in two large three-ring binders. He estimated the transcriptions had taken hundreds of hours to do.

Did I wrestle with that decision? Of course. Was it the right decision, knowing as I did it would mean giving up the prodigious work product of my father? Of course. As I became familiar with the intimate thoughts and writings and details of President Lee's life and ministry among the members and leaders of the Church, I came to a moment when I knew there was no other course to take. It seemed so contradictory to donate the originals and retain the copies. Donating them was an act of supreme consecration on Dad's part.

The contents were indeed "raw materials" from which my father drew in his compilation. Given the context of the times in which Harold B. Lee lived, as with all historical documents, they could easily be misjudged, misconstrued and misinterpreted. That's the risk of retaining them as a family.

I believe no one but Dad could have done that work, and I now consider what he did to be the crowning achievement of a life well-lived. As I read, I could easily discern each of the torturous decisions he had to make as he held the scales of objectivity in his hands in deciding what to include in the record and what to exclude. Every author has his biases, and Dad certainly had his. It may be an imperfect record, but given what I now know about what he had to work with, it was an honest and forthright work.

I trust the leaders of this Church, and I trust the God of heaven whose servants they are. I know they are mere mortals like me. I know they struggle with all the vicissitudes of mortality like all of us. I know they grapple and wrestle mightily to make decisions in the best interests of the Church's members. But I also know they are trustworthy. I am reminded of this precious verse:

". . . put your trust in that Spirit which leadeth to do good - yea, to do justly, to walk humbly, to judge righteously; and this is my Spirit. . . I will impart unto you of my Spirit, which shall enlighten your mind, which shall fill your soul with joy; and then shall ye know, or by this shall you know all things whatsoever you desire of me, which are pertaining unto things of righteousness, in faith believing in me that you shall receive." (D&C 11:12-14).


  1. I understand the idea of the double binds mentioned in Natasha's article, and I agree that they are damaging and difficult, but how does it differ from the gospel paradoxes we all face - to understand simultaneously that we are commanded to be perfect and ever-improving, and yet that we are completely loved and accepted by God right where we are?

  2. You've pinpointed the dilemma. His acceptance of each of us is perfect. Our desire to emulate His perfection is where our imperfection is manifested. But as we try and fail in our attempts, relying solely upon the merits of His perfection in all things, we are growing in our faith and expressing His divine attributes in our own lives. The improvements in us are incremental and almost imperceptible, but real.